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Sunday, March 03, 2024

Nils Walter disputes junk DNA: (5) What does the number of transcripts per cell tell us about function?

I'm discussing a recent paper published by Nils Walter (Walter, 2024). He is arguing against junk DNA by claiming that the human genome contains large numbers of non-coding genes.

This is the fifth post in the series. The first one outlines the issues that led to the current paper and the second one describes Walter's view of a paradigm shift. The third post describes the differing views on how to define key terms such as 'gene' and 'function.' The fourth post makes the case that differing views on junk DNA are mainly due to philosophical disagreements.

-Nils Walter disputes junk DNA: (1) The surprise

-Nils Walter disputes junk DNA: (2) The paradigm shaft

-Nils Walter disputes junk DNA: (3) Defining 'gene' and 'function'

-Nils Walter disputes junk DNA: (4) Different views of non-functional transcripts

Transcripts vs junk DNA

The most important issue, according to Nils Walter, is whether the human genome contains huge numbers of genes for lncRNAs and other types of regulatory RNAs. He doesn't give us any indication of how many of these potential genes he thinks exist or what percentage of the genome they cover. This is important since he's arguing against junk DNA but we don't know how much junk he's willing to accept.

There are several hundred thousand transcripts in the RNA databases. Most of them are identified as lncRNAs because they are bigger than 200 bp. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that 200,000 of these transcripts have a biologically relevant function and therefore there are 200,000 non-coding genes. A typical size might be 1000 bp so these genes would take up about 6.5% of the genome. That's about 10 times the number of protein-coding genes and more than 6 times the amount of coding DNA.

That's not going to make much of a difference in the junk DNA debate since proponents of junk DNA argue that 90% of the genome is junk and 10% is functional. All of those non-coding genes can be accommodated within the 10%.

The ENCODE researchers made a big deal out of pervasive transcription back in 2007 and again in 2012. We can quibble about the exact numbers but let's say that 80% of the human is transcribed. We know that protein-coding genes occupy at least 40% percent of the genome so much of this pervasive transcription is introns. If all of the presumptive regulatory genes are located in the remaining 40% (i.e. none in introns), and the average size is 1000 bp, then this could be about 1.24 million non-coding genes. Is this reasonable? Is this what Nils Walter is proposing?

I think there's some confusion about the difference between large numbers of functional transcripts and the bigger picture of how much total junk DNA there is in the human genome. I wish the opponents of junk DNA would commit to how much of the genome they think is functional and what evidence they have to support that position.

But they don't. So instead we're stuck with debates about how to decide whether some transcripts are functional or junk.

What does transcript concentration tell us about function?

If most detectable transcripts are due to spurious transcription of junk DNA then you would expect these transcripts to be present at very low levels. This turns out to be true as Nils Walter admits. He notes that "fewer than 1000 lncRNAs are present at greater than one copy per cell."

This is a problem for those who advocate that many of these low abundance transcripts must be functional. We are familiar with several of the ad hoc hypotheses that have been advanced to get around this problem. John Mattick has been promoting them for years [John Mattick's new paradigm shaft].

Walter advances two of these excuses. First, he says that a critical RNA may be present at an average of one molecule per cell but it might be abundant in just one specialized cell in the tissue. Furthermore, their expression might be transient so they can only be detected at certain times during development and we might not have assayed cells at the right time. I assume he's advocating that there might be a short burst of a large number of these extremely specialized regulatory RNAs in these special cells.

As far as I know, there aren't many examples of such specialized gene expression. You would need at least 100,000 examples in order to make a viable case for function.

His second argument is that many regulatory RNAs are restricted to the nucleus where they only need to bind to one regulatory sequence to carry out their function. This ignores the mass action laws that govern such interactions. If you apply the same reasoning to proteins then you would only need one lac repressor protein to shut down the lac operon in E. coli but we've known for 50 years that this doesn't work in spite of the fact that the lac repressor association constant shows that it is one of the tightest binding proteins known [DNA Binding Proteins]. This is covered in my biochemistry textbook on pages 650-651.1

If you apply the same reasoning to mammalian regulatory proteins then it turns out that you need 10,000 transcription factor molecules per nucleus in order to ensure that a few specific sites are occupied. That's not only because of the chemistry of binary interactions but also because the human genome is full of spurious sites that resemble the target regulatory sequence [The Specificity of DNA Binding Proteins]. I cover this in my book in Chapter 8: "Noncoding Genes and Junk RNA" in the section titled "On the important properties of DNA-binding proteins" (pp. 200-204). I use the estrogen receptor as an example based on calculations that were done in the mid-1970s. The same principles apply to regulatory RNAs.

This is a disagreement based entirely on biochemistry and molecular biology. There aren't enough examples (evidence) to make the first argument convincing and the second argument makes no sense in light of what we know about the interactions between molecules inside of the cell (or nucleus).

Note: I can almost excuse the fact that Nils Walter ignores my book on junk DNA, my biochemistry textbook, and my blog posts, but I can't excuse the fact that his main arguments have been challenged repeatedly in the scientific literature. A good scientist should go out of their way to seek out objections to their views and address them directly.

1. In addition to the thermodynamic (equilibrium) problem, there's a kinetic problem. DNA binding proteins can find their binding sites relatively quickly by one dimensional diffusion—an option that's not readily available to regulatory RNAs [Slip Slidin' Along - How DNA Binding Proteins Find Their Target].

Walter, N.G. (2024) Are non‐protein coding RNAs junk or treasure? An attempt to explain and reconcile opposing viewpoints of whether the human genome is mostly transcribed into non‐functional or functional RNAs. BioEssays:2300201. [doi: 10.1002/bies.202300201]

1 comment :

Jathro said...

Regaridng: "fewer than 1000 lncRNAs are present at greater than one copy per cell."

How many are there when these fewer than 1000 are present AND is this a shotgun approach - make make of the important functional ones so that they have a better probability of binding/finding their target in the cell?